About a year from now, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA) will announce the location of the third Chesapeake Bay Bridge crossing, having chosen from 14 options in Cecil, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Dorchester and Somerset counties. A no-build option also is on the table, so I understand.
The impact of a third span on the Eastern Shore will be monumental. Residential and commercial development will follow. Environmental effects will be severe. Quality of life, though an overused term, will take an irreversible blow.
Actual construction would be years off following completion of a federally mandated Environmental Impact Statement. I question how the State of Maryland would finance a $10-20 billion project at a time when public works projects of this size would require a large infusion of private money. Public-private (P3) projects are increasingly more common in the United States,
Nonetheless, the Eastern Shore should gird itself for battle. I say this, knowing that state law grants the Shore veto power over the selection of a crossing. However, state law can be changed, as an Anne Arundel state senator tried and failed to do last year.
As I’ve stated repeatedly in this column, legislative power is in the hands of Western Shore politicians. In this case, they are listening to constituents understandably upset over long waits from traffic congestion heading east and west over the current two Bay Bridge spans during the May-through-September vacation season.
As Eastern Shore residents, environmental groups and politicians prepare their arguments against a project that would undoubtedly change the rural face of Shore, I suggest that a particularly strong one is the real and overwhelming need to protect and preserve product farmland. I’m not minimizing other excellent reasons for opposition, such as environmental degradation and increased real estate development. I’m just tacking one way for this column.
As John Piotti, president and CEO if American Farmland Trust, wrote recently in the Bay Journal, “Farmland is critical infrastructure akin to roads and bridges. It is the source of the food that sustains us. In addition, farmland provides open space, areas for recreation and habitat for wildlife. It also controls floods, suppresses fires, filters water and represents a vast carbon sink to mitigate and even help reverse climate change.
“Think Maryland’s Eastern Shore.”
According to Piotti, Shore farmland contributes more than $8.25 billion to the U.S. economy. Queen Anne’s County contains the most agricultural acreage and the largest farmland economy in Maryland. The largest percentage of land devoted to farming is in Kent County with a figure of 76 percent. The figure is 55 percent in Queen Anne’s County.
According to an academic study conducted in 2013 by professors at Georgia State and Marquette universities, interstate highways cause the conversion of 468 acres for each mile of roadway. I’m guessing it’s a little less for intrastate highways.
No bridge stands alone. It must be accompanied by an extensive road structure leading to and from the high-flying structure. That’s the crux of the problem, apart from the thousands and thousands of cars dumped on the Shore as they hurry to coastal resorts.
There’s no telling if a persuasive argument such as the protection of productive farmland will win the day in the corridors of power in Annapolis. But increased and urgent preservation of farmland in the Delmarva peninsula just might thwart a land grab.
As a member of the board of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC), I well know of this organization’s success in preserving 60,000 acres in 29 years in an area ranging from Cecil to Dorchester County. State, local and land trust preservation programs are vital to keeping vibrant the agricultural economy on the Eastern Shore.
So, what am I proposing?
If a third Bay Bridge span is imminent—as measured possibly by a decade—then I suggest that a new initiative called Delmarva Oasis become part of our area’s consciousness. The intent is to preserve up to 50 percent of the land in Maryland’s Eastern Shore; currently the percentage is roughly 38 percent.
Delmarva Oasis makes particular sense in light of the threat presented by the potential construction of a third Chesapeake Bay Bridge span. It offers a way to protect and preserve valuable, food-producing farmland through the purchase of easements and the direct acquisition of land.
As John Piotti concluded, succinctly and sensibly, “We need to save the land that sustains us. No farms, no food, no future.”
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.
Addendum: A fair number of Spy readers have asked to view the original pdf file of maps associated with Howard Freedlander’s most recent column in the Chestertown Spy and Talbot Spy on the fourteen possible third bay bridge span options produced by Federal Highway Administration and Maryland Transportation Authority. Please review the document here. It is important to note that these maps are clearly labeled, as, “pre-decisional and deliberative.” The Spy appreciates the thoughtful comments on Howard’s piece about the impact of a possible new third span.